In the student blog This month I posted an entry which offers an introduction to the Hollywood studio system through the lens of the star system (most students seem to find this route palatable).
I realised in writing this, and the significant degree of editing it required (which still ended up at 1200 words) that this topic is enormous and if taught with passion and organisation can be hugely engaging and relevant for most students. Allowing them to discover classics of American cinema which may linger in their memories for many years to follow.
The key thing to remember when teaching the studio system is that the purpose is for students to acquire some understanding of the impact of an institution on movies made within it. Thus by extrapolation this is an attempt to ensure that students understand that all movies are made in an institutional context, and that the institution will always impact on the form of movies in some way, through policies of the institution towards production, distribution, exhibition and even audience expectations, in terms of their literacy of the material they’re offered, through the decoding and understanding intended and secondary meanings.
The example I’ve tended to use most was Warner Brothers, as their policies seem the most strictly and consistently applied throughout the period and their ‘house style’ was truly reflective of their aims as a film conglomerate: and is evident in even superficial readings of films from this period.
The staffing policies of Warners, (and most of the other the big five studios) in hiring personnel on long-term contracts, determined the production practices, particularly in the division of labour into semi-independent creative units along generic lines, and the fact of the long-term contracts meant that the personnel in these units were very stable, and acquired some expertise in making films of a specific genre, which in combination with the creative ambitions of senior production personnel (chief writers, producers Directors DP’s) and the pressure to repeat popular formulas kept a brake on too much innovation. This permitted what might be described as an evolution of the genres into more refined forms of story-telling
The repetition of popular formulas itself emerged at Warners from financial pressures to fill their cinema chains regardless of the lack of creative ambition, so that enough revenue was generated to service the huge debts Warners collected during their rapid expansion in the late 1920’s .
Thus, if we look at their early talkies (as Warners were the first of the conglomerates to successfully distribute a synchronised sound system to any of their cinema chains), these are little more than cheaply made exploitation films, many of Warners films of this period drew their stories from news stories, which provided the never ending flow of material to develop. It also helped to determine Warners vagually anti-establishment stance, making their films sympathetic to many of the audiences for their rural cinema chains in the mid-west and southern states (a marketing strategy), so for the rural audiences there would be the voyeurism and schadenfreude of observing the gritty and dangerous realities of urban corruption.
This also contributed to defining Warners generic territory, which included social campaigning films such as I am a fugitive from a chain gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1933), backstage musicals such as Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy 1933), reinforced Warners stance sympathetic to the down-trodden in the depression hit US.
In many examples Warners repetition of its generic output established and cemented the conventions of their genres. For example the urban crime thriller which include pre-production code exploitation films such as The Public Enemy (William Wellman 1931) and Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1933), glamourised the recent history of urban crime in the US, The main creative personnel of the unit making these films worked together over numerous productions so that the generic form quickly became stable and evolved very slowly.
Even the style of the film making reflects the financial constraints Warners staff functioned under, and this contributed to what became Warner’s house style. Thus, in The Public Enemy; cheap sets and low quality costuming are concealed by low-key lighting, the rapid and efficient development of story information through narrative ellipses of montage sequences also offered opportunities to recycle stock footage and sets from other films. Such was the success of this creative strategy that montage sequences became one of the main conventions of the gangster genre (from The public enemy , through Angels with dirty faces, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather to Goodfellas) .
Shooting pattens were dominated by fixed position shooting, camera movement confined to pans and tilts, and dominated by medium and close-up shots limiting how much of the sets would be visible, and giving the films a sense of urgency claustrophobia and intimacy.
The continual repetition through remakes and rehashing of stories in turn helped to refine the continuity system, and reinforce the literacy in the minds of the audiences.
Another key element of the institution which impacted on the form of films made in the studio system, was the introduction of the Production Code in response to the shameless exploitation film made in the early 1930’s, but I think the ways that skewed film making adds another degree of such complexity to the mix that I should save it for the next entry.